The Third Sunday of Advent: Awaiting the Redeemer

our lady of millenium

IS 35:1-6a, 10; PS 145:6-7, 8-9, 9-10; JAS 5: 7-10; MT 11: 2-11.

This Sunday we come to one of the days of “rose” (pink) vestments: Gaudete Sunday. Like Laetare Sunday in Lent, Gaudete is a pause in a preparatory season, a moment of joy (gaudete and laetare both more or less mean “rejoice”) in the midst of a season of repentance, a moment of “rose” among the purple.

It’s a nice reminder, in general, of what they call the “already-not yet” of Christianity. In fact, our fundamental posture is waiting. To be a Christian is to live in the “not yet”: this isn’t it. We live in darkness; we don’t see Jesus; we don’t see God. We wait for the final, ultimate feast.

And yet already there is rejoicing, already there is a foretaste. Even in this valley of tears, we have our feast days, our anticipations of the joy of heaven.

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Our reading from James discusses the posture of waiting: like farmers, patiently waiting for “the precious fruit of the earth.”

He describes how we “farmers” ought to wait. True patience also means not complaining about one another. If we know that our ultimate joy is “not yet,” then we don’t need to be so tough on one another. Relax!

Yet on the other hand, “take as an example of hardship and patience the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” Looking forward means preparing the way, actually looking forward. Patience does not mean getting comfortable here. It means living ourselves like we await something better – and calling others to look forward, too: like the prophets.

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The reading from Isaiah gives an important illustration of what St. Thomas means by “grace perfects nature.” “Grace perfects nature” does NOT mean “God helps those who help themselves.” What it means is that the work God does for us in grace is the work we would naturally want to do for ourselves, if we could.

“The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom. . . . Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing.”

The point is: this is what is supposed to happen. Eyes are supposed to see, ears are supposed to hear. Parched land is, in a sense, not natural: flowers are normal, the way it’s supposed to be. Our Redeemer is our Creator. He doesn’t come along and do something completely bizarre. He restores nature to its pristine dignity.

And so Isaiah can even say God “comes with vindication.” He drives away the oppressor, restores our original freedom and dignity.

And ultimately, this is the way to understand what it means for us to “see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God.” To “enter Zion singing” is to be “crowned with everlasting joy”: because we were made for this. Jesus restores our humanity, brings us back to ourselves. The Gospel is “joy and gladness” (the Latin says gaudium et laetitiam: the two rose Sundays) because it is what we are made for. Grace restores nature.

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And so we understand the figure of John the Baptist, in the reading from Matthew. John is in prison – because he stands for the moral law. John, remember, told the King that his sexual practices were immoral.

But here we see John looking for the Restorer, the Redeemer. “Are you the one we seek?” he asks Jesus. “Go and tell John what you see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk” – nature is restored. That’s what John longed for.

Jesus then describes John: a prophet, out in the desert. Our desert references come together nicely. John goes to the natural place that awaits redemption to proclaim that we await redemption: that human society is not alright, that we desperately need Jesus to set things right.

Jesus says this is the true way of the prophet. This is the messenger who prepares the way for Jesus. Only when we realize we are in the desert can we really long for the Messiah.

This is the greatest we can do: “among those born of women, there has been none greater than John the Baptist.” Nothing is more human than acknowledging that our situation is not human: we are in a dry land, blind and lame, not in the land of rejoicing and the vision of God.

“Yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Because ultimately, there is restoration. This waiting, this longing, is not what it’s all about. We look forward to something so much greater.

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How do you experience humanity’s desperate need for the Savior?

eric.m.johnston

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